Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Series of Talks Given by David Minor on The Erie Canal

Connect directly to David Minor's radio scripts:

"This project began as a talk to the winter meeting of the Canal Society of New York State in March 2002. I decided to follow two sets of travelers along the route of the Erie Canal - the first group during the planning stages, in 1810; the second group in 1826, shortly after the full length of the canal was opened. The idea was to draw on the journals of the travelers, while also giving some of the historic background of the areas traversed. Occasionally we'd project a bit into the future"

2006 TALK

Last time we left the canal commissioners in July of 1810 exploring the Lake Ontario port of Oswego, having made their way north by way of the Oswego River. We won't re-travel that route in reverse, but pick them up back at Three River Point, the juncture of the Oswego, Oneida and Seneca Rivers.

Canal Talks: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

Clinton does mention however that they stopped again at the tavern run by the Magie family, where they'd stayed a few days before, on their way north. This time they found the entire family, including whisky-loving daughter Ann, sober. The fact that all of them had come down with dysentery just might possibly have had something to do with that. Maybe? The travelers had a late afternoon "dinner" of fish chowder, followed by a glass of port. By now it was five o'clock but, even though the party decided the hour, "exposed us to great danger in traversing the waters of the Seneca at night", they set out to the west in their boats, the Eddy and the Morris.

Up until this point geology had been relatively kind to our canal commissioners. The eastern half of the state had provided them with the eastward-flowing Mohawk River, which brought them as far as Rome, and Oneida Lake had provided an additional water route to the Oswego River. From here on out most of the waterways would generally not flow along an east/west axis. This, and the rule that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, would influence the eventual route of the canal west of Syracuse. But for now, in 1810, the final canal route was still undecided.

Clinton was not favorably impressed by this stretch of the Seneca River directly west of the Onondaga Lake outlet. "On the approach of night it has a very unpleasant smell, and fever seems to hover over you. It looks like the Valley of the Shadow of Death . . . "

The previous reputation of the Seneca River makes this melodramatic biblical description seem quite apt. Dense forests, ferocious animals, and even more ferocious mosquitoes, all kept even the Indians at a distance and when the Europeans arrived they shunned the area for much the same reasons, well through the 18th century. Sometime around 1793 John McHarries built a cabin on the eastern end of the river on the south bank at a nine-foot drop in the river. He built a log cabin and went into business, helping boatmen navigate the rapids there and lending his time to a minute settlement called McHarrie's Rifts. Three years before our canal commissioners came through, a state road was completed between Oswego and Onondaga, crossing the river here at the rapids, primarily to aid in the delivery of mail. It also delivered Jonas C. Baldwin.

He'd been born in Windsor, Massachusetts, educated at Williams College and trained as a doctor in Albany. He'd gotten a job as doctor for the Inland Lock and Navigation Company, tending to the needs of the laborers building locks at Little Falls. He married in 1797 and, when his job at the lock was finished, the couple moved west to Ovid, in the Finger Lakes. On their way there they passed McHarrie's Rifts and Mrs. Baldwin fell in love with the site. They passed the night at the McHarrie cabin where Baldwin made inquiries and the following year he traveled to Philadelphia and bought the land. As the state road came through in 1807 it brought other travelers, who began thinking 'water power'. They petitioned Dr. Baldwin to erect mills on the site and before you could say "Damn it", he had. Or, at least, he'd begun. In mid-August the Seneca River version of Genesee Fever swooped down and carried off a number of the workmen. Doc Baldwin had his hands full.

The following year, after the lethal sickness had departed, construction resumed and Baldwin soon added a canal and locks to the plans. Mills and a toll bridge then turned the settlement into a boom town. And along came the commissioners.

It was an hour before midnight when they arrived at the home of Dr. Baldwin. Commissioner James Geddes had cut across country on foot to visit his home at Onondaga and had swung by Baldwin's settlement to inform the couple of their imminent eminent visitors, so the family had waited up for them. There was some mix up upon the late night arrival of the canal worthies, but soon all was straightened out and the commissioners settled in for a few days to inspect the works.

The Baldwin house, several linked log cabins, seems to have been quite substantial; what impressed Clinton the most was the stone in the chimney," brought from the head of Seneca Lake, which is deemed so handsome and valuable for chimney-pieces that a long piece has sold here for two dollars."

The next day, July 20th, was spent exploring the neighborhood. Surveyor Simeon De Witt had a field day, you should pardon the expression, measuring everything in sight. Clinton reports all of the measurements; to make a long story short, the river drops eight and a-half feet, it's twenty-three rods across at the bridge, and the canal is a hundred rods by twenty, and six feet deep. The necessity for the structure becomes clear when it's found the river bottom at the rift is smooth, solid rock, any earthen bottom being immediately swept away. You try poling your boat through when there's no bottom surface to dig your pole into.

This year so far over a hundred and eighty boats have paid their tolls to pass through the canal's two locks. Earlier in the spring, when the water was high, several vessels floated over the top of the dam. The dam and canal have cost the state between $12,000 and $13,000, the canal and locks alone probably about a quarter of that, by Clinton's calculations. So far this season a total of $424.80 in tolls has been collected.

Doctor Baldwin brings in extra income by running a small store on the premises. His house and store, several framed houses under construction, and a sawmill, planned to eventually house 23 saws, make up the entire community this summer of 1810. The commissioners leave the next day, first settling some complaints over working conditions made by the crew of the Morris. Their hosts, accepting no compensation, send them on their way with a parting gift of a saddle of lamb. As a gesture of gratitude our travelers present the Baldwin daughter with a copy of Captain Thomas Williamson's two-volume novel "The Dominican; a Romance", fresh from London just the year before, and reprinted (no international copyrights applying) in New York earlier this year. About as good as it gets in this year of 1810 B O (Before Oprah). The Eddy and the Morris shove off at 7 AM.

Before we visit our 1826 travelers we should clear up one point in Clinton's journal. He mentions that Columbia (later Baldwinsville) is at Camillus No. 7. Later on he mentions No. 8 Camillus (about seven miles further along) and No. 35 Camillus (southeast of Cross Lake). This had me a bit confused. He couldn't be referring to miles westward along the Seneca River? Camillus isn't on the Seneca River; it's to the south. A bit of Googling finally provided the answer. Back in 1790, when the central part of the state was laid out for the Military Tract, lands set aside for the soldiers of the Revolution, part of the land between Camillus and the Seneca River was designated the Town of Camillus. Each town was laid out in individual, numbered lots of about 600 acres. Following the numbering convention Camillus Township began numbering from the upper left corner and went to the east. The top tier went from one to seven, so Camillus No. 7 was in the northeast corner. Dropping south the next tier began with No. 8. and went east. And so forth. So No. 8 was across the town from Columbia, and No. 35 was down toward the opposite corner. If De Witt Clinton didn't remember the numbering system, another member of the party would have. Simeon DeWitt was the state surveyor and had those lots laid out nearly twenty years earlier.

When The Ditch was completed, a decade and a half later, Camillus No. 7 and Camillus No. 8 would not be part of it.

Now we'll head back to Syracuse and pick up Amos Eaton and his Rensselaer students in 1826. Last time we found them following the ditch's route to the south of Oneida Lake, rather than De Witt Clinton's path across the lake. Once again student Asa Fitch will be our official guide.

On Wednesday, May 10, 1826, they took their lunch (calling it dinner, remember) at Nine Mile Creek, to the north of Camillus, at a settlement called Otisco. Sixteen miles out of Syracuse, the creekside village had been founded in 1801, nine years before the commissioners had passed along on the Seneca River to the north. By the time of the Civil War it would only contain 30 houses, so must have been quite small when our Rensselaer crowd stopped by for a bite (prepared onboard probably by Frances, the expedition cook). As they moved along that afternoon Fitch mentions seeing a large number of shell specimens "thrown" out of the canal, probably meaning by construction crews. The collegians stopped for the night at the village of Canton (not to be confused with the official Canton up in St. Lawrence County), which would seem to be even smaller than Otisco. Neither are on many of our maps today. Fitch does mention however that some students spent part of the evening at a watchmaker's shop, examining the owner's handiwork.

At some point our 'journalist' began feeling bit odd. A headache began creeping up on him, and he grew a bit feverish, his eyes seeming weakened. As he was assigned to the bed-making detail that night he headed for the boat, hurried through his duties, and then was in his bed by midnight. He awoke during the night, shivering. Wrapping himself in a blanket he fell back on his bed and drifted off.

When he awoke in the morning he still didn't feel right. "I should feel much better off if I was at home, but many a mile is to be travelled over and many a day must elapse before I have that pleasure." The cold, damp morning air leaves him feeling dejected, but after breakfast at Jordan he begins feeling better.

He doesn't describe Jordan, or Port Byron, where they stopped for their midday meal. Both were quite small at the time, their existence then mainly to service the canal. He also makes no mention of contractor Asa Broadwell's lock at Jordan; the students had probably grown quite jaded by now, at least as far as 'locking through' went. His classmate George W. Clinton, De Witt's son, briefly mentions the lock and aqueduct at Jordan, noting it's construction from, "coarse grained limestone containing fine terebratulites." (astrophic brachiopods, to us lay-men and -women).

Our erudite young travelers moved on to Montezuma, collected a few shells, then moved along the canal another six miles before mooring for the night. George again: "During our journey we observed several water-snakes, one of which had a small catfish in his mouth, and although chased about for some time preserved his hold until being knocked on the head by a pole, he sank." And, while everybody aboard mulls over what fable of reptilian kharma Aesop would make of the whole thing, we'll return to our earlier band of brothers back on the Seneca River.

Clinton describes stopping ten miles out of Baldwinsville (Columbia at that time). "Visiting an adjacent house, and seeing three lusty women at the wash-tub, none of whom was older than forty, we thought we would involve the commodore in a scrape, through the medium of his curiosity, and told him there was a woman at the house 100 years old, with gray eyebrows, and that her faculties were remarkably good. He immediately left the boat in a great hurry, and paced with uncommon rapidity through a hot sun, to the house, and inquired with great earnestness for a sight of the old woman. Instead of meeting the fate of Orpheus, he was received with laughter, and returned completely hoaxed."

Was it curiosity or was the man just plain gullible? Much of the commissioners' spare time on this expedition seems to have been spent coming up with ways to play jokes on Thomas Eddy, the commodore, as he'd been nicknamed. At the age of 52, the Philadelphia philanthropist, one of the original creators of this expedition, was the third oldest member. As a young man in New York City he'd battled his way up from poverty, made a huge fortune in the insurance business, then turned to good works. One of which was helping to found the first state prison. Newgate, in lower Manhattan. It's an interesting sidelight to our story that a year after this canal planning expedition one of the inmates at Newgate would be future Rensselaer professor Amos Eaton, spending four years there for questionable real estate dealings.

Eddy seemed to be interested in every cause, popular or unpopular, of his time - free schools, abolition, humane treatment of the insane, and fair treatment of the Indian - gaining an international reputation for worthy works. Obviously a very serious character. Probably too tempting a target for a crew of worthy gentlemen with quite a bit of time on their hands. But he seems to have taken it all in good stride. At least, he never throttled anyone. De Witt Clinton will give the funeral oration seventeen years from now when Eddy dies in New York City, passing away himself the following year.

But that's the future. Back in 1810 the party continues on, up the Seneca River, passing between low, elongated drumlins and into the Montezuma marshes. Clinton mentions that at places like Cross Lake the river abounds with large reeds and grasses often eight or ten feet high. We don't know if he realizes it, but the Indian name for the river is Tiohero, meaning River of Rushes. He goes on to describe the, "insalubrious appearance of the country, and the heavy fogs on the river. . . There is scarcely any population on the river, owing to its unhealthiness. The settlements are back [away from the river]. Wordworth gave for his land [meaning here where they're staying for the night] four dollars an acre, four years ago, and his family have been afflicted with fever every year but the present. . . . In the common sitting room there were, besides, the family bed and a tunnel-like bed for the children. We were not deceived in our expectations with regard to sleep. The crying of children, the hardness of the boards, the chirping of crickets, and flying of bats, clouds of musquitoes, and a number of other nuisances, effectually prevented repose. We rose at four. . . "

That next morning, July 22nd, they pause for breakfast, waiting out a thick fog before starting out. Over the next eight miles they encounter shallow stretches at Skaneateles outlet, Hickory Island and Mosquito Point, the water averaging between four and six feet in depth. They pause at the later spot, to the north of Port Byron and speak briefly with tavernkeeper William Lyon, who volunteers his opinion that Baldwin's dam back at Columbia has ruined the salmon fishing all along the river. Up until now the Clinton party had been favored with tail winds, but west of the point the winds reverse direction, and the sails are of no help. By the use of muscle power they get within a mile of Montezuma village, then run into violent squalls.

In 1807, three years prior to their arrival, salt springs had been discovered on the site and this year a salt works is begun. Over the next few years a three-mile turnpike with bridges over the Seneca and Clyde rivers will make passage across the marshes easier for the outside world. Right now the village consists of several houses and a Baptist church; construction has begun on a sawmill. It's a tired bunch of commissioners who pull into the village at three that afternoon, where they put up at a tavern run by physician I. H. Terry. We'll let them rest from their exertions here at the inn. If "doctor" Terry is unable to prescribe something for their tired bodies, perhaps "tavernkeeper" Terry can.

The village will have grown quite a bit by the time Eaton and his band of budding scientists arrive sixteen years later. Several additional churches were organized in the intervening years following the war with England. A bit of frontier scandal had arisen in 1822 when, according to a history of the area, the Baptist Church had withdrawn, "the hand of fellowship from Sister Eunice Emons for her unlawful act in marrying another man while her husband liveth." Somehow Montezuma's good people had managed to get through that little precursor of Mormon polygamy.

The salt industry was never able to compete well with the growing works a few miles off to the east, but did manage to limp along until 1840, pause for twenty years, then revive for awhile. But obviously nothing here was exciting enough to draw the attention of Asa Fitch or George Clinton.

Here at Montezuma both parties faced a decision. The Rennselaer students debated parting from the canal to follow the Seneca River southward into Cayuga Lake and visiting Ithaca, at the other end, but decided against it. George's father De Witt, 16 years earlier, didn't have a huge choice, especially if he wanted to continue on by water. He'd pretty much run out of east-west waterways. He'd have to take to wagons in order to continue west to Rochester. So he took the route the students had decided against. Since he's leaving the eventual route of that first canal, we won't go into great detail at this point.

The commissioners did continue up the Seneca to Cayuga Lake, crossing its northern end on the mile-long bridge at Cayuga village, the structure a recent replacement for the original, built by developer Charles Williamson ten years earlier. They pass through Mynderse's Mills which are busily grinding flour, and on to Seneca Falls which, of course, still had its falls, extending a mile and rising thirty feet. Finally, after reaching Geneva, the time had come. They'd run out of traveling water. Having sold the boat they owned for $30, they set out from Geneva in two wagons on July 25th. Moving on in the next few days through Lyons, Canandaigua, Farmington, Bloomfield, they eventually arrived at the Genesee River at a ford about seven miles south of Lake Ontario (today's downtown Rochester), on July 28th. While they make their plans for exploring the lower Genesee River we'll jump ahead 16 years and pick up the others this side of Montezuma.

As they pull out, leaving the Montezuma Marshes behind, Asa Fitch remarks that the towpath is already showing signs of decay and will probably need extensive repairs in the next few years. Some enterprising soul has erected mile boards from this point on, all the way to Buffalo. They will have to sleep onboard the rest of the way to Rochester, there being no taverns through this stretch. We can be quite sure this state of affairs won't last for long.

Fitch is feeling much better in mind and spirit. On Friday, May 12th, they stop for breakfast at Clyde, dinner/lunch at Lyons and supper at Newark, before tying up for the night at Palmyra. The lack of taverns though here is a good indication the area had been fairly undeveloped until now. Clyde, named by local Scots for their homeland river, and previously named Blockhouse, for an early French trading post, and Lauraville, for Henrietta Laura, Countess of Bath, would not be incorporated for another nine years. Clyde has about twenty buildings. Fitch describes Lyons as a flourishing place where, "considerable business is done." Charles Williamson had given the settlement its name, saying it reminded him of Lyons, in France. Somewhere shortly afterwards the pronunciation had lapsed into Americanese. Over the past year the population has almost doubled, from 450 to 900, due to the canal. Among the businesses Fitch referred to was Hecox, Beaumont and Stafford's hardware store, established two years before. And just last year members of the 1809 Presbyterian, or Old Brick Church founded a Female Missionary Society. So the place has become a boomtown just during Fitch's last year at Rensselaer. After 1841 canal travelers will know when they reach Lyons because of the smell of peppermint emanating from the Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company.

Newark will not be incorporated until 1853 but Palmyra, according to Spafford's 1824 Gazetteer has three churches, an academy [high school], 2 or 3 school-houses, 13 dry good stores, 3 druggist shops, 3 inns, 2 tanneries . . . and a number of other mechanical establishments." What Fitch can't realize is that two months earlier a young man from south of town was tried on the charge of using magic and digging up the countryside looking for buried treasure. His name? Joseph Smith.

The next morning, after Fitch visits the printing office (soon to be made famous by that same Joseph Smith) to pick up the latest newspapers, the crew pushes on. They pass through Bushnell's Basin but are disappointed as they steer through the Grand Embankment when high west winds blow heavy sands along it, obscuring the view. They put up at Bloss's Canal Hotel in Brighton (today near East Avenue and I-490, or now the Erie Canal Expressway). They prepare for an early start the next morning, Sunday, May 14th, when the deckhands will rise and start washing and scrubbing the boat, preparing for their entry into Rochester. It will be very different place than the one the commissioners are about to encounter in 1810.

Actually, then, the place didn't even have a name; it just barely qualified as a 'place'. Ebenezer "Indian" Allan had built a mill here at the rapids in 1788 under the auspices of land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. The mill had passed through several hands since then before finally being wiped out during a spring flood in 1800. The next year a trading post, later known as Charlottesburgh, had been erected at the river's mouth on Lake Ontario. In 1803 developers Rochester, Carroll and Fitzhugh bought the area at the falls, but left it idle while they tried raising capital.

Just six months before the commissioners arrival, the seven pioneering Hanford brothers had opened a general store, grist mill and hotel at the lower falls, otherwise known as Fall Town. Suddenly, as spring has arrived, the area begins to show signs of new life, its falling waters putting the same single thought into several minds. Power. Rome, New York, native Francis Brown is returning home from Detroit, Michigan, via Lake Ontario when a storm forces him to put into the river's mouth for a few days. He hikes upstream and finds the falls, which start millwheels turning in his mind and he soon convinces his brother Matthew and several other investors to purchase the Hanfords' mill.

And now an ex-governor, a "Commodore", and several other gentlemen have arrived  on the river between the upper and middle falls. They make their way to the Hanfords' hotel and put up for the night. After-supper conversations with one of the brothers as well as with the U. S. Customs officer at the lake, first appointed in 1805, convince our travelers of both the commercial potential for the area and the business acumen of the Hanfords, as trade forwarders. They are told there is, "a great trade between this country and Montreal, in staves, potash, and flour . . . that 1000 barrels of flour, 1000 ditto of pork, 1000 ditto of potash, and upwards of 100,000 staves had already been sent this season from here to Montreal."

We'll leave them in very good hands here; everybody is obviously talking the same language.

However, sixteen years, including a major war, will bring many changes in the area. Clinton, Eddy and the others would hardly recognize the place our young scientists are going to encounter now, May of 1826. The local population, a handful in 1810, has now reached 7,669. For two years now the settlement has borne the name Rochester, shortened from Rochesterville, after promoter Nathaniel Rochester. The former colonel, in failing health lately, has been retired as president of the Bank of Rochester, which he helped found, since the end of 1824, and lives over on the west side of the river, a few blocks south of Buffalo Road, the town's main street. Besides seven or eight boatyards, the village contains nine sawmills and six churches. One of the later, St. Luke's Episcopal, was co-founded by Mr. Rochester.

Sunday morning at Bloss's, by the time the deckhands had scrubbed down the decks and gotten everything boatshape, it was too late to make morning church services. They apparently tied up down near the aqueduct in the center of town. Then they set out to explore the immediate neighborhood on foot. Their first stop was the public reading room and library down on State Street, near the main intersection west of the river, operated by Rochester Telegraph editor Thurlow Weed. There professor and students had access to, "Newspapers and reviews, foreign and domestic". Eaton and Weed have met before so the students are introduced to the editor. With another religious revival about to sweep through town it's quite possible Sunday hours may soon be a thing of the past for many places of business here.

They left the reading rooms at noon, accompanied by Weed, walked around a bit then some went over to the Presbyterian Church at two and attended services. Fitch was unimpressed by the building - "It is built of wood and not the least attention was paid to beauty or elegance." - and by the sermon, on baptism. Their party strolls around afterwards. Apparently Eaton has been very unimpressed with this frontier boomtown. "This place Prof. Eaton says is a mere mushroom, springing up in a moment, it is destined as soon to decay & fall away to nothing . . . does not believe there is a place on earth so remarkable for its splendor and poverty, as I recall." This 'place' will get its revenge tomorrow.

After a night's rest they all tour the upper and middle falls as Eaton lectures on the gorge's rock strata. Afterwards Fitch makes a detour to visit the Methodist Episcopal Church, which does impress him, with its gilt-bedecked altar. He notes that the cost of the brick edifice was $15,000, building materials being much cheaper here than in the Albany area.

After leaving he starts back for the boat, running into the Professor on the way. He notices right away that Eaton is acting rather strangely. He seems to be staggering a bit, feeling overcome with weakness. A storeowner standing in front of his establishment suggests Fitch bring the older man inside. "In a few minutes he became completely crazy," Fitch reports. They round up a local doctor named Marvin, and Eaton's surveyor and second-in-command James Eights, and get their charge back to the boat. For close to an hour Eaton thought he was among savages, did not recognize anyone, and was sure the doctor was trying to poison him. An emetic finally brought him to his senses. Fitch concludes the day's notes remarking that Eaton, "Was very glad to see Doctors Marvin and Bacchus." Hmmmm!

Fitch sleeps aboard the boat that night, visits the bookstore the next morning to buy a copy of cantos 12-16 of Byron's "Don Juan" then quickly returns to the boat. It's close to dawn when he and his fellow voyagers shuffle off to the west. We'll have a final reunion with everyone next time.

David Minor
Eagles Byte Historical Research
Pittsford, New York
585 264-0423
'dminor' 'at symbol' ''

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